More than 125 years after the Pullman Palace Car workers’ strike influenced and foreshadowed the nation’s labor and civil rights movements, Senator Dick Durbin, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Colleen Callahan, Director, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), and U.S. Representative Robin Kelly gathered at Chicago’s historic Pullman Clock Tower to celebrate the onset of construction of the Pullman National Monument site.
Joining the elected officials at the groundbreaking for the $34 million, 12-acre complex were Liisa Stark, representing both Union Pacific Railroad and the other National Park Foundation donors, which provided the first donated funds in 2014; Chicago Federation of Labor president Robert Reiter and Teri Gage, superintendent, Pullman National Monument for the National Park Service—the entity that is responsible for the construction and operation of the finished monument with its various historic and educational aspects.
After a brief opening by 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, who, joined community activists int the decades-long fight to win designation of Pullman as a National Monument, Gage spoke of the National Park Service’s plans for the iconic clock tower building and the agency’s commitment to partnership and collaboration.
“When renovation is complete next year, visitors will walk through the doors behind us, into this beautiful clock tower building and experience the fascinating Pullman story in an impressive state-of-the-art visitor center,” said Gage. “The National Park Service is thrilled to be a partner in sharing the Pullman story and thankful for the opportunity to work so closely with the community and the partner groups represented here today. It’s truly an honor.”
The monument’s master developer is the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. It is being designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, Bauer Latoza Studio, site design group and constructed by GMA Construction Group, Spaceco, Inc. and W.E. O’Neil Construction.
Cornelius Griggs representing the development team said, “The GMA Construction Group, as a minority, disadvantaged, veteran-owned business is elated to be the prime contractor on such an important and historic project for the Pullman community and our country.”
Speaking in front of the historic, soon to be transformed clock tower, built in 1880, into a new visitor center, Mayor Lori Lightfoot reflected on Pullman as the prototype of the new community. “One cannot help but be impressed by, and learn from, all that Pullman, with the leadership of CNI, Alderman Beale and others, have done to reinvent this great community,” Lightfoot said. “Little more than a decade ago, declared dead, the community with the assistance of Alderman Beale, CNI and others has demonstrated that by building on its assets—communities that were too easily written off can thrive.”
Renovation work on the 12-acre site will include transforming the iconic clock tower and administration building into the visitor’s center with exhibits that will recount the history of Pullman as a model town, as a labor mecca and as an antecedent of the civil rights and labor movements. Once completed in the spring of 2021, the exhibits will feature George Pullman and the Pullman Palace Car Co. that was the first to hire African Americans from the community for jobs as porters, waiters and housekeepers that were seen as a milestone in the civil rights movement in the 20th Century. It will also feature a new outdoor public space.
Additional exhibits will showcase the development of Pullman as a model town, the history of strife-ridden labor relations where the eight-hour workday was born and tell the story of the Pullman porters who worked in sleeper train cars across the country and formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first Black labor union that became the doorway through which many civil rights gains were made.
The groundbreaking for the 12-acre campus is the latest milestone in the revitalization of the Pullman community where a new 150,000-square-foot Amazon distribution center and 400,000-square-foot SC Johnson manufacturing facility will open in the fall, creating 400 jobs. Earlier this year, the Amateur Athletic Union agreed to make the Pullman Community Center its new Midwest headquarters, and residents moved into Pullman Artspace Lofts, the first new residential complex in Pullman in more than 50 years. These developments and opportunities were catalyzed by the designation of the National Monument site on Feb. 19, 2015, and the more than $350 million of public and private investments that include redevelopment of the 180-acre Ryerson steel site and creation of 1,500 jobs that has made Pullman “a model for neighborhood revitalization.”